Researchers from Stanford University and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a small but super powerful drone that can anchor to objects in order to haul heavy loads. While most drones passively monitor the world as flying sensor stations, the new drone actively manipulates the environment around it by either hoisting, pushing, or dragging objects, depending on the masses involved. There's increasing need for drones that can grapple and move heavy objects as drone delivery begins in earnest around the world. Drones capable of moving debris and opening doors would also be well-suited to disaster relief and search and rescue work. Called FlyCroTugs, short for "flying, micro, tugging robots," the drones anchor to objects using gecko-inspired adhesives and microspines.
In a move inspired by natural engineering, robotics researchers have demonstrated how tiny palm-size drones can forcefully tug objects 40 times their own mass by anchoring themselves to the ground or to walls. It's a glimpse into how small drones could more actively manipulate their environment in a way similar to humans or larger robots. "Teams of these drones could work cooperatively to perform more complex manipulation tasks," says Matt Estrada, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. "We demonstrated opening a door, but this approach could be extended to turning a ball valve, moving a piece of debris, or retrieving an object of interest from a disaster zone." Winged creatures such as birds, bats, and insects can only lift objects that are about five times their own weight when flying.
You might know wasps for their ability to brainwash cockroaches or inflict one of the most painful stings on Earth--one so powerful that the actual scientific advice to victims is to just lie down and scream until it passes. Lesser-known is the wasp's superlative ability to carry loads that are unexpectedly heavy given the creature's size. Small drones, or "micro air vehicles," are only able to lift the equivalent of their own weight. If we want flying robots that can move massive objects without requiring them to be the size of pterodactyls, engineers will need to come up with new ways of lifting stuff. So drone designers are looking to wasps for help, and developing creative ways to use the environment itself as a secret weapon in robotics.
Flying robots that can carry objects 40 times of their own weight and even open doors have been developed in a collaboration between Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Called FlyCroTug the tiny robots have advanced gripping technologies and the ability to move and pull on objects around it. When working in pairs, two FlyCroTugs can jointly lasso the door handle and heave the door open. The clever bots can adhere themselves to surfaces using adhesives inspired by the feet of geckos and insects. These sticky'hands' allow the robust to pull objects 40 times their weight, such as door handles, cameras or water bottles.
Being able to both walk and take flight is typical in nature – many birds, insects and other animals can do both. If we could program robots with similar versatility, it would open up many possibilities: picture machines that could fly into construction areas or disaster zones that aren't near roads, and then be able to squeeze through tight spaces to transport objects or rescue people. The problem is that usually robots that are good at one mode of transportation are, by necessity, bad at another. Drones are fast and agile, but generally have too limited of a battery life to travel for long distances. Ground vehicles, meanwhile, are more energy efficient, but also slower and less mobile.